Of Thugs From India



Put on a standard hip-hop record today and you will hear any run-of-the-mill rapper espouse the ‘thug life.’

Are you aware that the word ‘thug’ itself is Indian and ‘thuggee’ referred to the actual thug life of these ‘original gangstas,’ who indulged in trickery, robbery and murder?

We go back in time to the life and crimes of the real Thugs of the Indian subcontinent, and trace their story.

Thugs travelled in groups across the central Indian region
Thugs travelled in groups across the central Indian region|LHI Team

The earliest known mentions of the ‘thag’ can be found in the 10th century writings of Indian philosopher Bhasarvajna. The first clear indigenous use of the word appeared in 12th century Sanskrit texts, and later on in the the lyrics of 16th century poet Surdas, who wrote,

‘As a thag lures a pilgrim with laddus sweet with wine

Makes him drunk and trusting takes his money and his life

Painting of thugs strangling a traveller, unknown, Lucknow, 1837
Painting of thugs strangling a traveller, unknown, Lucknow, 1837|Wikimedia Commons

The word 'thugs' came into the mainstream, however, with the 1816 British account of Dr. Robert Sherwood ‘Of the Murderers called Phansigars,’ which appeared in the Madras Literary Gazette. According to this then widely-accepted account, the thugs were a fraternity of ‘phansigars’ or ‘stranglers,’ who preyed upon travellers along the highways of 19th century central India. Their unsuspecting victims were first befriended as fellow travellers and then strangled, robbed and buried in seclusion.


Unsuspecting victims were first befriended, then strangled, robbed and buried in seclusion

The thuggee, as they were also known collectively, were first encountered by the British when they were still trying to expand their influence and authority in early 19th century India. With law and order high on the agenda, the thuggee were surely seen as irritants.

Sherwood’s account is the first to mention a religious element in the proceedings. According to him, the thugs were superstitious and their tutelary deity was the goddess Kali. The thuggee are said to have avoided spilling blood to appease the goddess, so their chosen method of killing was to strangle their victims with a yellow rumal/cummerbund (handkerchief/belt).

Thugs worship Goddess Kali
Thugs worship Goddess Kali|Wikimedia Commons

According to accounts, often the killings would take place at campsites, when the victim was mostly tired at sunset. While a couple would do the actual killing, the rest would play music or make loud noises to drown any cry for help. They also spoke in a secret slang called ‘Ramasee,’ full of double meanings, euphemisms and ambiguity, another means to avoid detection.


Often, the killings would take place at campsites and the victims’ bellies were slashed to prevent decomposition

Once the victims were strangled, they would slash their bellies to prevent the bodies from decomposing. The bodies would then be buried in large pits on the roadside at unmarked spots. Most of their victims were merchants and native pilgrims who traveled across the country. The most valued items among the loot were horses or fine weapons sold to various armies at the time.

Sketch of a group of Thugs disposing of  travellers, 1829-1840
Sketch of a group of Thugs disposing of travellers, 1829-1840|Wikimedia Commons

Historian Kim Wagner argues that the act of thuggee was not caste-based, but was a choice of livelihood resorted to by all classes of society. Thuggee was also a seasonal occupation, with the thugs leaving their villages after the autumn harvest (October-November) and returning around June-July, before the monsoons. When a group returned to the village, the loot was used to repay, with high interest, the zamindar or main financier.

With the increasing reports on thuggee, the East India Company in 1810 passed Regulation VI, which imposed penalties for zamindars who did not pass on information on the thugs, followed by several investigative reports.

Photo of William-Henry-Sleeman, 19th Century
Photo of William-Henry-Sleeman, 19th Century|Wikimedia Commons

Finally on October 13, 1830, the Governor-General Lord William Bentinck authorized Captain William Henry Sleeman to systematically tackle this ‘menace.’ Sleeman set about capturing and interrogating the thugs.

He focused on gaining knowledge of the victims, whose bodies were exhumed and identified, and the testimony of the more ‘talkative’ thugs corroborated.

According to author Mike Dash in his book ‘Thug: The True story of India’s murderous cult’, 4500 thugs stood trial between 1826 and 1848, 1 in 9 was hanged and 3000 imprisoned for life. The rest either died awaiting trial or were sentenced to hard labour in penal colonies.

Sketch of Thug Guru Multhoo Byragee Jogee in jail (1840)
Sketch of Thug Guru Multhoo Byragee Jogee in jail (1840)|Wikimedia Commons

The consequent trials produced quite the sensational confession, including that of Thug leader Behram, active in the Oudh region, who claimed to have 'strangled 931 persons' during his forty-year 'career.'

Behram's special cummerbund or rumal had a large medallion sewn into it, used as a garrote to execute his killings. He could skillfully cast the rumal, so as to cause the medallion to land at the Adam's apple of his victims, adding pressure to the throat. This unique method made him a feared leader.


Thug Behram had a medallion sewn into his rumal for choking his victims, he claimed to have killed 931 people

When supposedly asked by the authorities,

‘Nine hundred and thirty-one murders? Surely, you can never have been guilty of such a number?’

he is said to have replied,

‘Sahib, there were many more, but I was so intrigued in luring them to destruction, that I ceased counting when certain of my thousand victims.’

The Thuggee and Dacoity Office’s manuscript however quotes Behram as saying he had ‘been present at’ rather than committed this nonetheless substantial number of murders.

Thug Behram
Thug Behram|Wikimedia Commons

Sleeman was promoted to General Superintendent of Proceedings for the Suppression of Thug Associations in January of 1835. In 1836, Act XXX was passed, which made it possible to convict thugs to life in prison, on the basis of notoriety alone.

This laid the groundwork for the Criminal Tribes Act (CAT) of 1871, under which, certain ethnic or social groups could be tried as essentially ‘criminal addicts.’ In 1839, Sleeman declared that the thuggee campaign was over and the group effectively wiped out.

Sketch of Thug Murdan Khan  and gang, Lucknow, 1840
Sketch of Thug Murdan Khan  and gang, Lucknow, 1840|Wikimedia Commons

Various narratives can be drawn out from the existence and the persecution of the thugs. Some see the British action against thuggee as part of a sinister effort of the Raj to further establish themselves in India.


Thuggee may have been a reflection of the crisis of poverty and desperation in the rural belt

Some others see the ritualistic behaviors of the groups as devoid of calculation and done purely out of stupor-like devotion. And yet others see them more as victims of insidious higher-uppers in the social strata, a reflection of the crisis of poverty and desperation in the rural belt.

While it Is certainly entertaining to watch Indiana Jones summarily take on  thugs in dramatic fashion, it’s also important to remember that history is rarely as simplistic, or confused as Spielberg shows it. Now whether our own pop culture in Bollywood does justice to the story of the thugs remains to be seen.

Whatever the narrative, one thing is for sure, this was a group of people you were best to avoid while driving down the highways of Central India, like the dacoits who would take over the region soon after.


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